Refusing to become a failed country: Life after State of Capture


South Africans need to embrace moderation and community rather than greed and individual gain, and we need to continue to work to build consensus, says Nceku Nyathi.

Source: Refusing to become a failed country: Life after State of Capture

The election of Cyril Ramaphosa as head of the ANC has given South Africa a degree of hope that the country will reverse its slide into junk status – but where we go from here will depend on if we are able to build consensus in the face of overwhelming odds, says Nceku Nyathi.

IN SOME ways the events in South Africa over the past few years resemble a case study by Francis Fukuyama on comparative history and political science.

Fukuyama in his recent work, Political Order and Political Decay, argues cogently that a well-ordered society needs three pillars on which to rest: a strong state, the rule of law and democratic accountability.

More than that, he demonstrates that you need to establish these three pillars in a specific order. A strong state, by which he means an autonomous, meritocratic bureaucracy, must come first or the rule of law and democracy/accountability may fail to take root.

Countries which set up democracies before they have functioning states, governed by the rule of law and administered through autonomous, meritocratic bureaucracies, frequently find that the institutions of the state are hijacked by politicians and corrupted as a result, he warns.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It’s a process he terms ‘clientelism’, and over the past few years, South Africans have had front row seats watching this process unfold in their country. And, thanks to the State of Capture report from former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, the Gupta email leaks, and plenty of excellent investigative journalism, we have not been spared the details.

Fukuyama’s compelling hypothesis explains neatly why Germany, for example, is a prosperous democracy, while neighbouring Greece is floundering in a sovereign debt crisis.

Prussia (the forerunner of modern-day Germany), argues Fukuyama, developed a highly efficient civil service at the beginning of the 19th century, well before the establishment of democracy, while Greece, which achieved universal male suffrage in 1864 (ahead of many other European states), had no autonomous system of administration in place.

As a result, political patronage in Greece ballooned, and within a decade the country had a civil service seven times the size of Britain’s.

So what’s gone wrong?

It is hard not to draw parallels between Greece’s trajectory and that of South Africa which finds itself 22 years into democracy facing the uncomfortable question of, to quote former parliamentarian and vice-chairperson of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee Alex Boraine, “What’s gone wrong?”

Even a cursory inventory of where the country stands regarding Fukuyama’s three pillars reveals that, at best, only one out of the three is functioning – and that, of course, is the judiciary, to which civil society has been forced to turn to in order to ensure the Constitution is honoured by the country’s leadership.

We have seen several landmark rulings in the past few years that don’t need to be enumerated here. Meantime, with a few notable exceptions, the majority of state institutions are battling a crippling lack of capacity and crumbling infrastructure resulting in failures of service delivery.

And we have a leader who instead of heeding a rising cacophony of calls to resign has chosen instead to go on the offensive saying that his critics are “out of line” or “misinterpreting democracy”.

It would be tempting, given the evidence, to conclude therefore that the country is simply doomed to go the way of so many others described in Fukuyama’s narratives of failed states. But in so many ways, the events of the past months have seen this narrative go somewhat off script – giving us cause for hope that the country can buck the trend.

The determined rallying of the rand on the back of the election in December of Cyril Ramaphosa as head of the ANC is just one indication that this is a hope shared also by the markets.

This hope is being buoyed by an unprecedented uprising of stakeholders across the spectrum – both inside government and outside of it, including civil society, business, labour and not forgetting ordinary citizens – united in a common purpose to protect South Africa’s democracy.

From union Nehawu’s call for Zuma’s resignation to the now famous critique of Zuma’s administration by Sipho Pityana, chairperson of AngloGold Ashanti, and subsequent civil society coalition Save South Africa, which seeks to “inject new energy and urgency into our body politic”, the country has not seen this degree of mobilisation since the days of the United Democratic Front that succeeded in aligning a range of different bodies often with varying agendas in the fight against apartheid – with notable effect.

This momentum is being bolstered by a press that has risen to the occasion with commendable vigour, providing excellent commentary and analysis of events helping to give flesh to the concept of what accountability in a democratic society should mean.

Growing body of committed citizens

And citizens, notably not just the country’s middle classes, have of course taken this and amplified it through the channels of social media, through signing petitions and getting involved. Their actions are helping to make it harder and harder for the Zuma administration to hide from the consequences of their choices over the past few years.

All eyes are now, understandably, turning to Ramaphosa to see what moves he will make in relation to these choices. And while much hinges on this, we should also not lose sight of the fact that, as a country, while we might not yet have a well enough functioning bureaucracy or a strong culture of accountability, what we do have in our favour is a growing body of committed citizens who are ready to take an active role in forging a new social contract that can build value for all South Africans.

This bodes well because even with the best laws and institutions in place and with a moral and ethical leader at the helm, this on its own won’t be enough to end corruption.

We need a culture change and mental de-wiring from greed and the opportunistic quick gain. We need to learn to be satisfied with enough rather than desiring of more and more, and that starts with an individual choice.

As citizens, we need to embrace values of sustainability, moderation and community rather than greed, consumption and individual gain, and we need to continue to work to build consensus, looking for what unites rather than what divides us and create the spaces where dialogue – not rhetoric – can thrive.

South Africans have already shown that the country is able to buck the trend with its peaceful transition 22 years ago. Let’s hope that we can do it again by drawing the line against state capture and getting back on track to building a South Africa we all want to live in.

  • Nceku Nyathi is a senior lecturer at the Allan Gray Centre for Values-based Leadership at the UCT Graduate School of Business. Views expressed are his own.